The King vs the Inhabitants of Child Okeford -William IV takes on Child Okeford.
“Welcome to the village, have you moved far to come here? Shillingstone? Not far then. Before you move in though could I see your Settlement certificate? You haven’t got one? Oh dear – Bailiff take them back to Shillingstone use force if necessary.”
Today freedom of movement is taken for granted, but in the past, if you were poor you were effectively confined to your Parish and if you tried to settle elsewhere you were forcibly returned to it. It had not always been thus; prior to 1662 labouring men had been free to move around the country with their families but in that year, in the reign of Charles the Second, a law, The Settlement Act [NOT to be confused with the Act of Settlement of the same year] was passed which restricted the movement of poor people. The purpose was explained in the preamble to the act:
“by reason of some defects in the law, poor people are not restrained from going from one parish to another, and therefore do endeavour to settle themselves in those parishes where there is the best
stock, the largest commons or wastes to build cottages, and the most woods for them to burn and destroy; and when they have consumed it, then to another parish; and at last become rogues and vagabonds; to the great discouragement of parishes to provide stock, when it is liable to be devoured by strangers.”
It was supposed that each person had one, and only one, parish to whom they “belonged” and which had the responsibility for providing poor relief for them if they became destitute. Under this Act if a village officer, usually the Churchwardens or Overseer of the Poor went to a magistrate within forty days of a newcomer arriving in the parish then the newcomer could be ejected.
The lawmakers then were not much better than they are today because they failed to see a consequence of the act, which was that if an individual moved to a new parish, and managed to stay for more than forty days they acquired settlement in the new parish which had then to assume responsibility for them.
Several problems arose from this. Firstly, since it was the parishioners who paid directly for the poor they naturally did not want to pay for the poor belonging to other parishes. It became an automatic response to evict newcomers from the parish. Secondly as they did not want to pay for their own poor they frequently resorted to smuggling them into neighbouring parishes and keeping them “hidden”. Fierce quarrels between parishes broke out as a consequence and several amendments to the act had to be made. The first was that any new arrival in the village had to be registered by the Overseer of the Poor and the arrival publicly announced from the pulpit in the church. From that moment the forty days commenced and if you did not reveal yourself – no settlement.
The act created problems ; a certain amount of movement of workers between parishes was necessary to fill in gaps in local work skills. Given the short time they had to evict new arrivals how could the Parish elders decide who was likely to become a liability and who not? A series of amendments over the centuries helped clarify the situation.
By 1697 a labourer was less likely to be evicted if he could show that he fulfilled certain criteria. He still had to be resident for forty days but if he rented a tenement [land or cottage] which was of the value of £10 per year he was not likely to be chucked out. In 1722 this was raised to £30 a year as some parishes found it cheaper to give their paupers the money to rent a tenement in someone else’s parish rather than keep them in their own.
Similarly settlement could be gained if he was paying the parish taxes, or he held public office in the parish, or he was serving an apprenticeship in the parish. Importantly in our story single men had an additional means of acquiring settlement: they could gain it if they were hired for a year’s service in the parish.
These amendments solved nothing: a poor man could by definition not afford £10 and frequently the parish officers warned their parishioners not to let land to newcomers if it was worth over £10. Poor people did not pay taxes and would not be given the chance of being a public officer. Only the young became apprentices and they were least likely to become destitute. Since an agreement for a years hire gave settlement most contracts were made for periods shorter than a year.
The only hope for a poor man was to acquire a Certificate of Settlement, effectively a guarantee underwritten by Parish A that they would accept responsibility under the Poor Laws for the man if he fell destitute whilst in Parish B. Since the cost of removal fell to Parish A there was a reluctance to issue certificates, after all who knew what might happen to him; the fate of the poor man was entirely in the hands of the parish officers.
The Settlement laws proved to be incredibly complicated to administer and litigation was common. They were the reason why, in 1832, the King, William IV decided to prosecute the People of Child Okeford in a case recorded as “Rex v Child Okeford TT 2 W 4 3 B Ad 809”, perhaps the only time in history that the village has been taken to court.
The Rossiter family had lived in the Child Okeford at least since 1641. In 1791 Samuel Rossiter had married Ann Jeanes and they had five children all of whom were alive in 1825. In 1840 we know that one of his sons, John, was farming Okeford Farm [later to be called Manor Farm] in the village. When he began to farm here we do not know but in 1825, when he was about 30 years old he hired a man called E Miller as a “servant in husbandry” for which he was paid five guineas a year. On the 11th of April 1826, just short of a year on the old contract, a new agreement was made between Miller and Rossiter as a result of which Miller was paid 5s a week, £13 a year. This time he was to act as an “out of door” servant a post he retained for the next two months until about June 1826.
When he started work in April 1825 Miller was resident in Child Okeford for 16 days until 3rd May 1825 when, accompanying his master, he moved to Marnhull where Rossiter owned land. Miller worked and resided in Marnhull until the 6th of April 1826 when he returned to Child Okeford with Rossiter and continued to work for him under the old contract until 11th of April and after that for two months under the new contract. After which we lose track of Mr E Miller.
Although he had not served under his old contract for a full year this did not matter as it was agreed that the original contract Miller had with Rossiter had been for a year. Under the Settlement law surely he would be eligible for settlement rights?
Clearly the village elders felt he wasn’t, after all he had spent most of the time in Marnhull during this period and presumably they felt that he had become resident there. They applied to two Justices of the Peace who agreed that he had not met the residency criterion for Child Okeford and ordered the removal of Miller from Child Okeford to Marnhull.
Unfortunately we do not have any of the details of this initial phase of the case but at some point someone, we know not who, identified the case as being important and made an appeal to the quarter sessions on Millers behalf where the JP’s decision was overturned and the case referred on to a higher court.
After nearly 170 years of the act being in force it appears that this situation had never before arisen and that in making their decision the JP’s had set a precedent not seen before in law. It was acknowledged that in order to gain a settlement by hiring and service some part of the forty days residence must be while the person was serving under a yearly contract. The question revolved around how much had to be served under the contract.
The Overseers of the Poor in Child Okeford, and the JP’s clearly thought that All of the forty days residence should be within a year from the time of the yearly hiring. The Judges at the quarter sessions did not agree however and saw this as a precedent which should be tested.
The Lord Tenterden and Judges Littledale and Taunton examined the case. They agreed that to give a settlement by hiring and service there should be forty days residence within the compass of one year but they decided that there was nothing in law stating when the year was to be computed from. It did not in law have to start at the time of making the yearly contract “it was sufficient if the forty days residence be within the compass of a year it need not be within one year from the yearly hiring.” In other words if the person had another contract after the expiry of the initial contract some of the forty days could be served in that contract.
They upheld the quarter sessions decision and overturned the eviction of Miller from Child Okeford to Marnhull. The Village had lost, and the rate payers had to support Miller under the Poor Law.
The title “The King versus the Inhabitants of Child Okeford” is a little dramatic although historically correct; this case was published in 1832 in two books, practical handbooks for lawyers but we were not unique , the “King” had in fact taken action versus the inhabitants of over 100 hundred parishes or so over the years and our neighbours in Okeford Fitzpaine had in fact been taken to court two years before. Nevertheless the Child Okeford case was clearly of sufficient importance to merit warrant inclusion in these books.
Unfortunately we have no details of the early part of the case; I have searched the Vestry records and Churchwarden records for this period and can find no mention of Miller, nor are there any quarter session records and unfortunately the Poor Law records have not been published for Child Okeford [assuming they still exist]. We do not know who the Overseer of the Poor was, or the Justices of the Peace or who decided that their initial decision should sent for appeal.
What then can we surmise. Firstly there is the name – E Miller. He is mentioned in only one of the accounts, indeed in one of the accounts he is not named at all but referred to simply as “the pauper”. This term begs the question however for presumably Miller was not a pauper when he was hired. Had he been a pauper from another parish the issue of settlement would have already arisen and he would not have been hired.
That he was single can be assumed as settlement under the “hiring and service” clause was confined to single men. He was probably young, even in 1825 a wage of 5 guineas [approx 2s a week] was very little although as he accompanied Rossiter to Marnhull it may well have been that he was provided with board and lodgings. His new contract for £13 pa gave him a wage more closely aligned to other agricultural workers in Dorset and it seems strange that he would willingly give this up; I think it reasonable to assume that some misfortune in his circumstances led him to be thrown onto the Parish.
Who was this mysterious pauper? Searching Ancestry reveals a possible candidate. There is a birth record of an Ezekiel Miller, born in 1806 in Woolland which would have made him 19 in 1825. His name does not appear again in any record. The 1841 census for Child Okeford reveals that there was a Hezekiah Miller who was born in “Dorset” and said to have been born in 1811. He married a Child Okeford girl, Mary Trowbridge in 1826 and continued to live in the Parish, working as an agricultural labourer, until his death in 1870. They had seven children together. He appears regularly in the subsequent censuses and apart from the 1841 census his birth place is recorded as being Woolland and his birth date “about 1807”. Clearly he is the Ezekiel Miller mentioned above and the best candidate for being “the pauper.”
In 1834 the Settlement Act was partially repealed. The needs of the industrialising towns to attract labour meant that it effectively became defunct and the poor were able to move around their own country once again.
The books mentioned are freely available either on Google Books or through archive.org. Their titles are
“THE ACT FOR THE AMENDMENT OF THE POOR LAWS WITH A PRACTICAL INTRODUCTION” Notes and Forms John Archbold 1835
“THE LAWS RELATING TO THE POOR BEING A SUPPLEMENT TO THE SIXTH EDITION OF BOTT’S POOR LAWS AS WELL AS TO THE FOURTH EDITION OF NOLAN’S TREATISE ON THE SAME SUBJECT INCLUDING ALL THE CASES AND STATUTES TO THE DAY OF PUBLICATION By JOHN TIDD PRATT OF THE INNER TEMPLE ESQ BARRISTER AT LAW.”
They knew how to give titles to their books in those days. These were practical handbooks for